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By THOMAS STEVENSON

 

I was awoken the next day by the sound of Father opening the shutters that covered our skylights. So began the morning. I’d spent a good part of the night washing buckets and was much sleepier than usual. I stretched out in my hammock and yawned like a hippo as the blue light flooded into our subterranean home. Then I remembered Chiara.

“Did you sleep, sister?” I heard Father ask her.

Chiara’s response was almost imperceptible, but I guessed it was a no. I could only imagine how the poor girl felt after her first night floating. We had provided her with a spare hammock, hung close to the polished basalt floor. As I twisted around in my own hammock, I saw she had wrapped the fabric very tightly around her mouth. She still looked as pale as ghost milk, but at least she wasn’t trembling. Cocooning herself may have been a contributing factor.

There was no sign of Mother, who shared the same sleeping chamber as us. I guessed she was already upstairs, in the shop. A glance at the chronometer on the wall told me it was too early to join her. We couldn’t expect customers for another hour. So I lay there for a few minutes, thinking about our eventful day and wondering what might come next.

When I eventually clambered out of the hammock, it was to enjoy my allocated one-minute cold shower. The water I used to wash would be filtered and returned to our rooftop tank. After that I dressed up and munched on whiskerbeans for breakfast. Almost everything in our kitchen grew in the fields of New Honolulu and the forest of New Rakiura, a nearby floating mountain. Meat was a rare treat, because humans were the most common animals in the Void, and eating each other would just be bad manners.

Chiara still hadn’t moved. I took another whiskerbean from the kitchen and offered it to her. “Are you hungry?” I asked.

She looked upon the vegetable as a cook would look upon an invading rat. Earthlings often reacted that way. The whiskerbean was radish red in colour and had a lumpy texture, like it was covered in pustules. It was also particularly large, almost twenty centimetres long. A crowning tuft of thin, white hairs gave it its name.

“Don’t worry, it tastes a lot better than it looks! Should I, uh, cut it up for you?”

Chiara’s head poked out of her hammock just far enough to nod. Back into the kitchen I went. With one of Father’s knives I sliced up the whiskerbean, revealing its purple internal flesh. I tossed the wire-like hairs into a bin to be recycled as fertiliser. When I served the slices to Chiara, she nibbled on one and, to my surprise, didn’t spit it out.

“Hmm. Thank you,” she said. “It’s very… different.”

“It’s quite protein-rich, you’ll find. To make up for all the meat we don’t have!”

“I never ate meat anyway. I’m vegetarian.” She stopped nibbling and bravely shoved the whole slice in her mouth. “Maybe I could get used to these. Thank you, Kopra.”

“You’re very welcome. Would you like some dried slugs to go with those?”

“WHAT?!” I was amazed by how far Chiara’s eyes seemed to eject from her skull.

“I’m only joking!”

“Please don’t…” She laid down the rest of the whiskerbean and disappeared back into the hammock. Too late, I realised what I’d done. I tried to think of a new topic to break the mother of all awkward silences. Luckily, my own Mother came to the rescue by asking me to come upstairs.

“Kopra, customers! Are you able to help out?” She called down through the open trapdoor.

When I looked back at Chiara, her expression told me she’d prefer to be alone for a while. Therefore I climbed out of the den and into the bright storeroom. Father was there, building a new stack of gleaming fuel cells. Out in the main shop, Mother was inspecting a man’s jetpack and saying something contemptuous about the copper shortage. About five other customers were already gathered, carrying their tradeables and waiting patiently for service.

“Good morning, folks! Can I help any of you?” As I took my place behind the counter, a woman holding an empty oxygen tank approached. Immediately I noticed that she and the man Mother was talking to bore matching badges. The badge appeared to show a crossed pickaxe and shovel, suggesting they were from the New Auckland copper mine.

“I need some fresh oxygen so I can fly back home. I’ve got enough hydrogen already. Do you also happen to have any flight goggles? I don’t know how, but mine got badly cracked.”

“Certainly! Do you have your old goggles with you? If you could show me, that would make it easier to see which size you need.”

The woman hesitated for a moment. In fact, she was biting her lip, like Jovumi did whenever she tried to hide something. Finally, she produced the goggles in question and the damage was more than obvious. A massive circular hole had been punched through one of the lenses, with deep cracks spreading all around the frame. Her goggles hadn’t just been cracked; I was surprised they weren’t shattered! How this happened to a miner, I didn’t dare ask.

“Well, you weren’t kidding! I’ll just skip next door and get you some new ones.” Upon my return, I saw the woman had placed an item to trade on the counter. It was a large circuit board studded with the sort of components that would make Father salivate.

“This is what I have to trade. Is it sufficient?”

“Let’s have a peek!” I picked up the circuit board and scrutinised it more closely. “Yep, all these capacitors are useful. We can definitely find a home for that transformer. Oh, and we’ve needing an IC like this one for a while! I’m happy to accept your trade.” In exchange, I passed the woman her new goggles and rolled a full tank of oxygen over the counter.

“Thank you very much. We wish you a productive day!” Her friend had finished his trade with Mother, so the two miners left the shop together. They seemed like pleasant enough people, but there was something off-putting about the hole in the woman’s goggles. There was no time to contemplate its mystery though, because more folks were entering the shop.

Our morning progressed at a rapid pace, as most mornings do at Chayon and Alika Flight Tech. I served Vicar Duval next, he who gave such inspirational sermons at the Church of the Infinite Cloud. He also asked for some fresh gas and gave us a copy of The Bible in return, which was destined for Chiara. Gafra dropped in to ask how the Earthling was doing, while Mother quickly sewed up a tear in one of her stabilisers. Rutalis showed up again, not to buy anything, but to enquire about the ignition coil problem. Father responded that he was working on a “bypass mechanism,” and we left it at that.

By the time lunch was announced, Mother and I had seen thirty-two folks between us. That was by no means a record, but it was still a solid effort. Father sealed the shop door, giving me a chance to grab more whiskerbeans and, more importantly, check on Chiara. Her condition had improved significantly. While she still refused to move from the hammock, the hue of her face had become much warmer.

“Hi again. How are you feeling?” I asked. Still kicking myself over my dried slugs comment, I was afraid to get too close or speak too loud.

The effect of this was that Chiara misheard my question and just answered with, “Yes.”

Take two. “Sorry, I meant, how are you feeling?”

“Oh. Better, I guess. Thanks again for the… what was it called?”

“A whiskerbean. And it’s no trouble at all. You look much better, from where I’m standing!”

Slowly, still half-mummified in the hammock, Chiara raised a hand above her face. She held it there for a few seconds, just watching it. The hand looked as steady as an Earth-based rock to me. Then she lowered it and gave me her first smile since reaching the Void. “I’m not shaking any more!”

“Is that… something you’re prone to?”

“I have anxiety issues. It sucks.” She kicked herself free of the hammock and raised herself into a sitting position, her eyes now fixed on the black, basaltic floor.

“How can we help you with that?” I asked tentatively.

“It helps to go and do fun things. Take your mind off the source of the stress.”

For me, ‘fun things’ meant diving headfirst into a wormhole and falling at ridiculous speed for half an hour. I suspected Chiara didn’t share this passion. “Okay, what do you do for fun?”

“Write.”

“Sorry?”

“I’m a writer. I like to write stories. Also I play the piano.” She looked up at me and scratched her head. “Do you know what a piano is?”

“Um… is it electronic?”

“No, it’s a very ancient musical instrument. Oh well… isn’t it lunch time for you, Kopra?”

All four of us had lunch together, crammed into the main chamber like any ordinary Voidese family. Father prepared plenty of food for Chiara, but she only ate a fraction of it. This didn’t seem to upset my parents. On the contrary, they encouraged her to drop it all into a bucket. I didn’t explain it then, but that same bucket would be used to collect our bodily wastes and distribute them in the fields. Everything was recycled in the Void. It wasn’t like you could chuck your waste over the side of the mountain; it would literally come back to haunt you.

Our afternoon was perfectly normal, with plenty of Regulars coming, making small talk and leaving us with tradeables. Just a couple of Puddle-makers showed up to buy essential gear. It occurred to me that Chiara would need flight training or she’d be forever stuck below the Puddle-maker class. At the time, I didn’t understand what she meant by ‘anxiety issues,’ so I thought it would be an easy task.

A few hours later, when the shop finally became quiet, I decided to corner Father in the storeroom to ask him about the mysterious ‘piano.’ After a brief discussion, we headed outside for some fresh air. It didn’t seem appropriate to go for a jump that day, since Chiara could become ill again. Instead, I ran a full lap around the mountain, passing by the homes of the other engineers.

Upon my return, I was astonished to see Chiara venturing into the open. She tiptoed out of the shop, like a meerkat poking out of its burrow to scan for predators. (I know what that’s like because I’ve been to New Kuala Lumpur before, where they have a meerkat breeding colony.) Her expression was of profound bewilderment.

My knowledge of Earth was limited, but I understood what kind of horizon Chiara was used to. What she saw then was not a horizon, but a green pasture dipping down to the near edge of New Honolulu. When she looked up, it was to gaze at the sky with an open mouth. For a good two minutes she stared. Finally she turned back to me and said, “Wait… where’s the Sun?”

At first I didn’t comprehend what she was asking. “The what?”

“The Sun.”

“Oh… that thing. There is no Sun in the Void!”

“But how can we see? Where does the light come from?”

I’d been expecting such a tough question and, at that moment, saw two options. The first was to be completely honest. The second option was what I like to call polysyllabic obfustication. It means making up big words to hide the fact you have no idea what the real answer is.

I chose to be honest.

“Nobody knows where the light comes from,” I replied. “Not even clever engineers like Father. It’s a big mystery!”

“No Sun? And not much ground… all that empty space… falling…” Chiara looked down at her hands; they were trembling again.

“Are you okay?”

Before I could get a verbal answer, she rushed back inside the shop. Somebody inside emitted a surprised grunt, like they’d been pushed out of the way. At once I knew I’d have another bucket to clean soon. Poor girl.

***

Chiara’s second night in the Void was marginally less stressful than the first. The next day, Father suggested she spend the whole day resting, to which she agreed. He kept the shutters closed, so the mysterious blue light wouldn’t disturb her. After a modest breakfast, my parents and I got to business, leaving Chiara to herself.

Late in the morning, Gafra dropped in to the shop. By which I mean, she flew in and landed right in our doorway, leaving a stream of vapour behind her. At the time we had the company of two customers, who jumped upon hearing the sounds of Gafra’s jetpack. Then they chuckled politely, perhaps thinking this was a deliberate demonstration of our flight tech. It was no such thing. When Gafra removed her goggles and detached herself from the jetpack, I could see she wasn’t flying for fun.

“What’s up?” I asked.

“I’ve just come from the infirmary… Kopra, you’re not going to believe what’s happened!”

“I just don’t believe what’s happened,” I said a few minutes later. “Didn’t I warn you not to do this two days ago? Now look what’s happened to you!”

“I’m sorry, Kopra,” Jovumi replied. Part of me hadn’t been surprised to find her in bed in New Honolulu’s infirmary. Despite what I considered to be solid advice, she had tried to pass through the sides of the church spire again. In my view, she was lucky to be there with only a fractured humerus.

Gafra and I sat next to Jovumi’s bed, watching her with a unique mixture of worry and frustration. I think I’ll call it ‘wustration.’ We were in a wide room like a hall, built from bamboo and scrap steel. It made up the above-ground portion of the infirmary. Places like this existed on most inhabited mountains in the Void; they were as close as you could get to an Earth-style hospital.

“Promise us you won’t try it again, okay?”

“I promise.” Jovumi placed her left hand on her chest. Her right arm was completely immobilised. Then she said, “I promise I won’t be so stupid again.”

“We all do silly things from time to time,” said Gafra. She had adopted her normal jovial tone. “Besides, it’s not the end of the world. You’re gonna be okay in… how many weeks?”

“Ten.”

“See? Blink of an eye!”

Jovumi made some movement that I interpreted as a shrug. It occurred to me that she looked a bit like Chiara in this state. Her face had the colour of a cauliflower. When she looked down at her broken arm, her face reminded me of Chiara’s upon being shown a whiskerbean. They even had the same hair colour, a kind of jet black, like fresh basalt.

As if reading my thoughts, Jovumi turned back to me and said, “By the way, I heard about the girl you saved. How is she doing?”

“Oh… she’s still very shaken. But seems to be doing okay.”

“She is staying with Kopra’s family for now,” said Gafra. “You know, she could move in with me if she wants. I have plenty of free space at home!”

“What about your parents?”

“Yeah, they could stay there too.” Gafra grinned and Jovumi giggled. There was one other patient in the room and I heard him groan in his bed. Just like that, the wustration had faded away and we were all happy smiles again. Isn’t friendship a wonderful thing?

Unfortunately, we couldn’t stay for long. “I left Mother and Father to mind the shop alone,” said I, “they will need me back very soon.”

“Then get going, falcon boy!” Gafra placed a tender hand on Jovumi’s left shoulder. “I need to go too, I’m afraid, it’s sowing time on my farm. But we’ll see you again soon, alright?”

“Okay. Thank you for visiting me!”

“Any time, Jovumi.”

The infirmary’s front door was made of tightly lashed bamboo, which caught the air and made a whistling noise as I pushed it open. There was a girl standing just outside. When she heard the whistle, her head snapped around and our eyes met. For a moment, I had that weird feeling you get when you can’t quite remember where you’ve seen somebody before. Then the gears operating my brain engaged. It was Chiara standing before me.

“Chiara, you’re up!”

“Yeah. I needed some fresh air.” She was still barely audible, but her voice didn’t waver or crack. I quickly looked her up and down. She held her hands by her sides; they weren’t shaking at all. Her Earthling boots had started to develop the grey stain of the gravel walking tracks. More than a hint of colour had returned to her face. Overall, she was a very different girl to the one I’d met at terminal velocity just two days before.

It was at that moment that I felt a tap on my shoulder. “Excuse me, falcon butt…”

“What? Oh, sorry!” Gafra was trying to push past me in order to get through the infirmary’s entrance. We shuffled around each other like confused penguins, much to Chiara’s amusement. (There are no penguins on New Kuala Lumpur, or anywhere else in the Void, but I’ve seen plenty of pictures of them.)

Upon seeing Chiara out in the open, Gafra’s face lit up like a breloom tree. “Hey sister, how are you feeling? You okay?”

“Yes, thank you.” She looked back at me. “Your Mother says the shop is really quiet today, so she doesn’t need you back yet.”

“In that case… would you like to come for a walk with us?”

“With you, you mean.” Gafra nudged me. “I’m still on a schedule, sorry.”

“Of course. Have a good afternoon!”

“You too. See you at church tomorrow!” She skipped away along the path, her jetpack clanking against her back.

Chiara and I set off in the opposite direction. The infirmary was situated a bit north of home, but the path curved gracefully to the east, following a contour of New Honolulu’s striking peak. From this angle, it looked like a jagged black tooth rising into the sky. However, Chiara didn’t seem to notice it. She kept looking at the sloping fields and wooden dwellings around us.

“There’s so much green here,” she whispered. “I never thought there was this much green in the whole universe.”

“I take it Earth is more of an eyesore?”

“Earth is a frozen wasteland. I miss my family, of course. But this place… I think I could get used to it.”

I gulped audibly. Somehow it hadn’t occurred to me that Chiara might want to get back to her family. Fearing how her stomach might respond, I asked, “How is your family?”

“Dead. My parents and my two brothers. I buried them years ago, but I didn’t tell anyone else where the graves were.” She was suddenly very matter-of-fact, her expression more or less blank. There was none of the emotion she’d shown in the previous two days. It was as if she’d buried her pain along with her family. “They were all killed in an avalanche… do you know what an avalanche is?”

I shook my head. For the next few minutes, neither of us spoke. We climbed a low hill and turned south-east. On this side of the mountain there were less homes, farms and fields. Instead, much of the space was taken up by the Guild of Engineers’ brainchildren. In these buildings, they did everything from manufacturing fuel cells and computers to recycling waste and producing food. Without the first generation of engineers, these vital services would never have been possible.

“What is that thing?” Chiara pointed up at the sky with wide eyes. “Is that a balloon?”

I looked up too and wasn’t surprised to see a gigantic, silvery teardrop floating above us. “That is a very special balloon. It’s a hydrogen harvester.”

“A what?” Her voice had taken on a new tone, which I could only describe as uncontainable curiosity. She was coming out of her shell, as Father would say. For once, she showed no signs of an impeding anxiety attack.

Encouraged by Chiara’s progress, I began to explain the harvester to her. “That balloon is filled with hydrogen from the red clouds. To start off, it’s empty and it sits inside that deck part at the bottom.” With both hands I traced the outline of the square bamboo deck. “Somebody has to drop the harvester into the clouds. There’s a simple digital relay on board that releases the balloon when it’s at the right height. Then it fills up and slowly drifts back down here. Easy!”

“And that’s the hydrogen you use in all your fuel cells?”

“Yep!” As we watched the balloon come down, I did my best to explain how it all worked. The purpose of its deck was mainly for weight, otherwise it would never come down at all. Some men came out to land the contraption. They paid no attention to Chiara and I, but they spoke rapidly to each other. Each man grabbed one of the ropes hanging from underneath the balloon. They then pulled it toward a cylindrical tower, perhaps twice the height of my parents’ shop, where it would be emptied of its precious hydrogen.

Chiara piped up again. “You know, I’m glad.”

“Glad of what?”

“That I’m still alive. I have nobody left on Earth. There’s no reason for me to go back there, even if I could. It would be like going to Hell.” Without any warning, she swung around and trapped me in a bear hug. “I’m still alive!”

“You’re welcome.” After a few seconds, we broke off our embrace. Then we watched as another hydrogen harvester came down, looking rather more full than the first one. As a result, its descent was incredibly slow, since the extra hydrogen only made it more buoyant. The team of men started singing hymns as they waited for it to sink toward them. Yes, it was good to be alive.

 

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